In the early ’90s, Joe and Paul Bartolotta saw an opportunity. The two brothers, who grew up in Wauwatosa, had spent the first decade of their careers working in restaurants around the globe – Joe in New York, and Paul in Italy, France, New York and Chicago. When Joe moved back to Wisconsin to start a family, he called Paul – he thought Milwaukee was primed for a “big city-style” restaurant, and that the two of them should be the ones to make it happen. “I was confident in my skills as a chef and operator, so I told him, “OK, let’s find a place,” Paul says.
Joe went looking and soon discovered a small building on State Street in Wauwatosa, where a restaurant had recently closed. The brothers secured financing from Joe DeRosa, a Wisconsin restaurateur and businessman, who served as a mentor and friend to them both, and they started building their first restaurant. They decorated the dining room with family photos in a rustic, Italian style, and Paul developed a thoughtful (and delicious) menu from his years of experience working at some of the most successful restaurants in the world.
“I’m so proud of this legacy and so grateful to the city for embracing our family.” – Paul Bartolotta
Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993 opened its doors on March 23, 1993 – and it was an immediate hit. Its first review garnered four stars, and Milwaukee Magazine critic Willard Romantini wrote, “After 12 years as a critic and thousands of restaurant visits, there are still times when this reviewer manages to get really excited about a new restaurant. This is one of those times.”
The restaurant was such a success that the brothers soon turned their sights on a second Bartolotta restaurant, this time in Milwaukee’s iconic Lake Park, where a historic pavilion was sitting empty on the bluff. Paul had the idea of expanding into a different cuisine – French food.
“I vividly remember pitching Lake Park Bistro to my brother and him barking back at me, ‘But Paul, we’re Italian!’” Paul says. Despite the misgiving, the risk paid off when Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro opened to similar success in 1995. “It reinforced that the community was behind us and liked the authenticity of what we were doing,” Paul says.
Over the course of the next 28 years, The Bartolotta Restaurants continued to grow. The group now has a portfolio of 17 one-of-a-kind restaurants and catering facilities throughout the Milwaukee area, including Mr. B’s – A Bartolotta Steakhouse, Bacchus – A Bartolotta Restaurant, Harbor House and Joey Gerard’s – A Bartolotta Supper Club. “Being able to witness the growth and expansion of Milwaukee as a city and a culinary destination has been incredibly rewarding,” Paul says. “I’d like to think we have played a small part in elevating, educating and developing the culinary landscape of Milwaukee.”
In April 2019, tragedy struck the family when Joe passed away at the age of 60. “Losing my brother was by far one of the greatest losses I’ve experienced in life,” Paul says. “Not because of what he contributed to the business, but because of what he meant to me in my heart, what he meant to our family, to our employees and to the community.”
After that, Paul become the restaurant group’s sole proprietor, leading it through the COVID pandemic to its 30-year anniversary this year. The group is now working on a new location, The Commodore – A Bartolotta Restaurant, slated to open on Nagawicka Lake later this year, and Paul plans to continue extending The Bartolotta Restaurants.
“Because we bring our family values to ‘The Bartolotta Table,’ with great food, friendly environments and genuine hospitality, we continue to grow, even after 30 years,” Paul says. “There is an expression in our industry that states, ‘Restaurants don’t get tired; owners do.’ Anyone who knows me knows that I am inexhaustible, and I regularly say that we are only as good as our last performance – and I believe my best work is still ahead of me.”
520 W. McKinley Ave.